They hardly dance at all, but they’re important characters who are on stage for a large part of the performance. Character dancers are an essential element in nearly all full-length classical ballets. Dutch National Ballet often invites former dancers with the company to perform these roles. This time, they are Nicolas Rapaic, Amanda Beck, Jane Lord and Raimondo Fornoni, among others.
Author: Rosalie Overing
These four ‘character dancers’ can now boast a long list of roles in ballet classics. This season, they return to the stage of Dutch National Ballet, in The Sleeping Beauty, in the roles of the king, the queen and the master of ceremonies Catalabutte, respectively
The first time that former soloist Nicolas Rapaic performed the role of the king in The Sleeping Beauty was still during his professional career with Dutch National Ballet. Nicolas says, “At the time, it wasn’t exactly my dream role. When you’re at the peak of your career in your twenties or thirties, you’d rather be performing a big dancing role. But nowadays, I think it’s a great role, if only for the beautiful costumes you get to wear.” So Nicolas is happy to be transformed into a king once again for this performance series of The Sleeping Beauty. “It’s a pleasure to be back on stage, back in the world you know so well. You are once again part of the whole process – from the beginning until the end – and of the team bringing the ballet to life. And everything’s arranged for you. You’re dressed and made up, and coached from start to finish by wonderful ballet masters. All you have to do then as a character dancer is go on stage, seize the moment and enjoy it.”
Mime and emotion
Amanda Beck (former soloist) and Jane Lord (former principal), who are sharing the role of queen this season, together with Nadine Drouin, also see the energy one gets from a live performance as an important reason for continuing to do character roles. Amanda says, “It’s an honour to keep on experiencing the thing that made you want to become a dancer in the first place. I’m very happy I still get invited to perform.” Both women danced in the first production of Sir Peter Wright’s Sleeping Beauty in 1981, and have since worked with the choreographer on several occasions. Jane says, “That means I’ve learned ‘from the source’ how best to perform a character role. However, you do need to keep on improving yourself, and fortunately, we are well supported in this by ballet master Sandrine Leroy. Because performing character roles isn’t as easy as it looks. Every movement you make has to be clear to the audience and you have to remain in character throughout the performance, even if you’re just watching from your throne for almost an entire act.” So mime and expression are extremely important in interpreting a character role, explains Jane. “I’ve always liked mime and roles with lots of emotion. Conveying emotions is one of my strengths, which is one of the reasons I enjoy dancing character roles so much.”
These emotions reach a climax in the scene Sir Peter Wright himself once described as ‘the queen’s lament’, which follows the moment when Aurora pricks her finger and falls unconscious. For both Jane and Amanda, this is one of their favourite moments in performing the queen. Amanda says, “It’s a very dramatic scene, so it’s fantastic to do. Another of my favourite moments comes in the prologue, when the queen walks downstage to present the princess, with her baby in her arms. I always imagine the baby is one of my own children or my grandson. Then it feels really magical.”
‘For this role, you can’t be grumpy or old enough!’
Character dance veteran
The third character role in The Sleeping Beauty is Catalabutte, the master of ceremonies at the court, who is held responsible for failing to invite the wicked fairy Carabosse to the christening party. This season, one of the artists interpreting the role of Catalabutte is a true character dance veteran, Raimondo Fornoni, who made his debut as a character dancer in 1981, as the king in Sir Peter Wright’s Sleeping Beauty. Nowadays, he enjoys watching a new generation of character dancers perform this role. Raimondo says, “The king should be a big man and not too old. After all, he has a young daughter. So it’s good that dancers like Nicolas Rapaic and Tycho Hupperets are now taking over the role. Catalabutte, on the other hand, is a rather nasty old man. So for that role, you can’t be grumpy or old enough!”
Besides the king and Catalabutte in The Sleeping Beauty, Raimondo has danced nearly all the male character roles in the classical repertoire over the past forty years. So he knows better than most that these roles – although they don’t usually involve any dance steps – can’t be performed by just anyone. Raimondo says, “You have to know the ballet world inside and out, or else it won’t work. Only if you’ve been a dancer yourself can you respond to the unspoken rules and laws that apply to this world.” However, that doesn’t mean that every ballet dancer is automatically suited to character roles. “You have to give the right dramatic interpretation of a role, which is something you can’t learn overnight. Apart from being a naturally good performer, it’s really important to gain lots of experience. So this year, I’m planning to give my best interpretation of Catalabutte to date!”
This production series of The Sleeping Beauty also features Tycho Hupperets, Nadine Drouin and Janusz Madej in the roles of the king, the queen and Catalabutte, respectively.